A life story

Resident speaks out about mental illness and the need for compassion

Afew years ago, I veered way off my path (or so I thought and beat myself up for it at the time) and spent about five years doing my impression of Norm from Cheers on a local barstool.  It was expensive financially, physically and emotionally. I caused irreversible damage to my family and friends. Part of me would like to be filled with nothing but regret over the entire episode, except that sitting on the next stool was a person who would turn my life around.

We met on Halloween in 2009, and I was completely drawn in by her joie de vivre. I was lifeless inside and she seemed to have life to spare. With my cohort along, I felt much safer to be myself out there in the world.

It took her almost five years to tell me, with tears and trepidation over the possibility of being rejected, the she has BPD.

Why on earth does it take anyone five years to say, “I have an illness?” Just think about that. Are people embarrassed to say “I have cancer?” No. Do people hide their autistic kids? No. Our culture makes room for all the innocently ill people. Developmentally delayed? We’ve got room for you. Fetal alcohol syndrome? We welcome Carson. Joined at the head? Yup, we’ve got room for you both 🙂

Oh, wait, you’re mentally ill? Well, you make people very uncomfortable. Deeply. Maybe addicted on top of that? Well, that was a choice, then. It’s all your own fault now, isn’t it? You’re not innocent.


And who wouldn’t fear being shunned? So many  people with mental illnesses hide in plain sight and try desperately to look normal, whatever the hell that is.

When Jody said BPD, I thought I knew what she was talking about (bipolar disorder, right?). I was wrong and that’s OK. When I dove into research on borderline personality disorder to better understand my friend, I found myself and finally an explanation for why I’ve always been such a mess. I saw a psychiatrist and she confirmed the diagnosis.

I have BPD. Way oversimplified, it’s an emotional disregulation disorder. I’m easily driven off the rails by emotion and,  once off, it takes a certain skill set to get back on. Building those skills ideally starts in infancy under the guidance of emotionally healthy parents.

Given the abuse often suffered by our parents’ generation as children, it’s no surprise that emotionally healthy was out of their reach. So, many of us are reaching midlife, having modeled our disorder as normal for a whole new generation, just as our parents did, before getting a clue that we’ve lacked the skills all along.

I’m not going to hide. I am not afraid. I don’t feel ashamed. I didn’t choose to have BPD any more than Carson chose to have FAS. I have a ton of work to do, building coping skills for myself and my family.

I can’t build them in isolation so I’m going out in the world and being brave.

Jody showed me how and I’m going to thank the gods every day for putting her in my path, there on the bar stool next to mine.


Sam Zaharia